Over the course of his 11-year career, Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce has amassed a legendary resume: eight Pro Bowls, seven All-Pro selections, two Super Bowl championships numerous all-time tight end records.
And let’s not forget that right now, he’s also dating the world’s biggest pop star.
With all these accolades, Kelce should be the last Kansas City player opposing defenses leave open. But as these past few weeks have shown, covering a player who is arguably the best tight end in NFL history is much easier said than done.
“I think defenses and defensive coordinators are doing their best to cover him,” said quarterback Patrick Mahomes earlier this week. “There’s a reason he’s Travis Kelce. He finds a way to get himself open — versus man, versus zone, versus everything. I’m just glad he’s on my team; I’ll say that.”
Even at the age of 34, Kelce’s excellence throughout his career can sometimes make it easy to take his current success for granted. Despite missing the first game of the season, Kelce now ranks first among all tight ends in receptions (48) and receiving yards (525). His four touchdowns trail only Minnesota Vikings tight end T.J. Hockenson, who has five trips to the end zone. Kelce’s 2023 performance ranks 12th among all NFL receivers.
Chiefs’ offensive coordinator Matt Nagy says a lot of the team’s offense is designed just for him.
“That hasn’t changed this year,” he told reporters on Thursday. “That’s been forever that it’s a lot — and then it’s just a matter of how much of ‘a lot’ does he get in [a particular] game. For instance, you have certain games where he [doesn’t have] a lot of catches but a lot of touchdowns — or he has a couple of catches for a lot of yards.
“One thing he has done is [that] he catches footballs every game. That’s a part of who we are; we know that.”
Kelce's production comes from his combination of size, skill and football IQ, which allows him to beat virtually any coverage. His physical traits make him a mismatch against opposing linebackers and safeties in man coverage, while his elite ability to find open areas on the field makes him difficult to defend in zone.
When Kelce is then paired with Mahomes, they’re almost impossible for defenses to control.
“They know how to work,” explained Nagy. “So if you’re going to play a lot of zone, Kelce know how to find areas. If you’re going to play a lot of man, he knows how to win versus man. You’re just seeing a little bit more of that connection.
“Also, where Pat might push up out of the pocket [and] have a scramble? There’s just a couple of plays where you just shake your head. It’s the first part of the play, the second part and the third part — and then all of a sudden, out of nowhere, they connect and [Mahomes] finds him.”
So how can opposing defenses slow Kelce down? Only a few have succeeded — and even then, it’s usually just until the Chiefs can figure out a counter. In Week 6, the Denver Broncos tried a unique solution, assigning their top cornerback Patrick Surtain II to Kansas City’s tight end. Head coach Andy Reid wouldn’t be surprised if they try it again in Sunday’s rematch.
“No. 2 jumped on him on third downs [the] last time we played,” recalled Reid. “They know who Trav is — and they had a plan there. So maybe you see a little more of that — or whatever. But teams are taking and putting good players on Trav — or are doubling him.”
The problem with these strategies, however, is that the extra attention on Kelce compromises the defense in other places. The Chiefs are more than happy to take advantage.
“From a defensive standpoint,” Reid added, “[if you] try to put too many guys on one guy and then the other guys have a battle, so that can be a tough thing from that side.”
Regardless of the coverage, the Chiefs have shown that they can (and will) find ways to get the ball to Kelce. His ability to get open never ceases to amaze even his own teammates.
“When you watch Trav work, it’s incredible how open he is,” said Kansas City right guard Trey Smith. “His knowledge [of] the game [can] put him in position to be that open. Then [he can] manipulate defenders and defensive schemes to let him have the ability to do what he does best.
“He’s been one of the best tight ends since he stepped into the league.”